“We might have witnessed the last North Korea Mass Games in history”, my buddy Joe tells me. We’re in a cafe in rainy Amsterdam catching up. I met Joe on a tour to Pyongyang (North Korea’s capital) and we both left the tour more puzzled that we already were. Although the whole tour was only a day and a half, we felt like we got an inside look into a city unlike any other in the world. And the icing on the cake was a visit to the North Korea Mass Games, also called the Arirang Festival.
Throughout the day there were several updates: yes, you’re going to see the North Korea Mass Games, no, you’re not going to see the North Korea Mass Games. Luckily for us, this gamble ended well. We were able to see the Mass Games!
Visiting Pyongyang, capital of North Korea
Our group of 11 had a full-size coach to ourselves, and we were being driven around the city to visit its sights. Apart from the “regular” stops at the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the Mass Games (or Arirang Festival) were on the top of our mind. We already had a 20-hour delay on the way to Pyongyang due to the lack of electricity to keep the train running, so we had exactly one full day to see it all. And we definitely wanted to see it all, our group was full of seasoned travellers who weren’t going to take no for an answer. Luckily our tour guide (the non-Korean one) had the same attitude, and practically overruled the North Korean tour guide on a few occasions. This went as follows: “I’m afraid we can’t make it out to attraction X today”. “Yes we can”. “Ok, I’ll see what I can do”. And then we would see the attraction.
I’m well aware that there is plenty wrong with the Mass Games, but this article is not meant to give an opinion about this. I simply want to show you photos and videos of the 2013 Mass Games I visited. It was an amazing spectacle and it would be selfish not to share it.
The North Korea Mass Games gamble
A similar thing happened to visit the famous Arirang festival. On the day of arrival, our group gathered at the Dandong (China) train station. We went through the program to which our tour leader added a note: we might not be able to see the Mass Games. Many of us were disappointed, but the word “might” gave us some hope. In the next day, a rollercoaster of Mass Game-related emotions took place. Throughout the day there were several updates: yes, you’re going to see the Mass Games, no, you’re not going to see the Mass Games. Luckily for us, this gamble ended well. We were able to see the Mass Games!
Will there be a North Korea Mass Games in 2018?
As far as I know, there hasn’t been any Mass Games since 2013. On the Wikipedia page of the Arirang Festival it is said that the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Mass Games have been cancelled, but contrary to popular belief, the games were actually held in 2015. Koryo Tours recently reported that the games will be held again in 2018.
The flip-side of the Mass Games
I’m well aware that there is plenty wrong with the Mass Games, but this article is not meant to give an opinion about this. I simply want to show you photos and videos of the 2013 Mass Games I visited. It was an amazing spectacle and it would be selfish not to share it. The Mass Games I visited were held in honour of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice.
We will start this photo series with the official Arirang song, that every North Korean resident has memorized.
North Korean kids practice their moves outside the stadium, just before the big show.
Traditionally dressed door hostesses check the tickets when we enter the massive Rungrado 1st of May stadium.
An astounding “living screen” composed of more than 30.000 students provides for the backdrop of the 90-minute performance. In this video, the children practice flipping their 170-page book with different colours, each representing a “pixel” that makes up an image picturing the theme of the show.
Note from Young Pioneer Tours: the main reason they would only fill a certain section of the stadium is that the performance is designed to be viewed from the front angle. Imagine watching it from too far to the side, it would look terrible especially with the backdrop, and when you consider it’s a propaganda exercise as opposed to a musical show or a profit-making enterprise, they just don’t want it to be seen unless it’s seen right. Also, because they would hold the games for 2 and a half months with performances 3 days a week, generally there was never an excess of demand!
Another practice round before the show, where they train their ability to provide seamless picture transitions for the audience. You have to keep in mind that these are 30.000 kids all doing the same thing at the same time.
The hula hoop gymnasts in action.
There we have it, the grand finale. A grand display of fireworks can be seen through the open roof of the stadium, the Russian choirs are at it’s most intense and the inflated globe has entered the stage. Note that the red dot on the globe symbolized “Korea”, making no difference between North and South Korea. This was, by far, the greatest show I have ever seen. It was strange to see that only a quarter of the stadium was filled with locals, mostly in military outfits. A show like this needs a greater audience in my opinion, but then again, would we be able to motivate (in any way) 30.000 children to sit still and flip a coloured book every few minutes for more than 1.5 hours?